Key Learnings about the Future of Work from Josh Bersin

“40% percent of americans believe it is not possible to succeed at work and have a balanced family life..”

Welcome to Late Stage Capitalism

The way we work is changing, this much is obvious. Modern communications and social media has turned businesses into real time experiences, top-down management is dissolving as young professionals demand more opportunity, leadership, and responsibility. Underpinning this shift is gasp technology.

With so much changing all at once, working out where you stand during this time of hardcore expectation turbulence is increasingly unclear. In ‘Aligning the organization for its digital future’ Deloitte Digital found that 90% of managers and executives expect moderate to severe digital disruption, and 92% feel they are not equipped to deal with the digital world they are inhabiting.

In his keynote speech at the Singularity University Global Summit, Josh Bersin took an unusual perspective on the future of work by focusing on human capital. When we think of technology disrupting business we think of the archetypal ‘robots taking human jobs’ cliché, when in reality the ‘issue’ (if you can call it an issue) is far more complex than simply automating your Starbucks experience.

The reality is that technology giveth, more than it taketh away.

In his keynote, Bersin recalled how IBM thought that offices of the future post-PC would be paperless. Bersin recalled how the spreadsheet was tipped to eviscerate the need for Wall Street analysts, because ‘the computer can do what they do.’ Rather than gut their jobs, analysts became proficient at using the software and optimized their workflow. There are now more analysts working in that industry than before the inception of the spreadsheet.

Given the wealth of reading material about how AI will steal your job, it’s essential to view these texts as speculative reactionary responses to a perceived job security threat. X stealing your job is a very sensationalist and narrow view that the press often takes, and it’s because the real world is too complex for them to distill into a soundbite or a headline. Simplifying a problem makes it easier for them to write and for their readers to digest.

Here’s Josh’s thoughts on the subject:

We Have Too Much Technology


“..this [social and mobile] industrial revolution is producing the least amount of productivity of any industrial revolution of the past.”

Bold statement, but according to research conducted by Deloitte, people in the United States alone check their phones eight billion times a day.

Eight. Billion.

Articles exploring our productivity are pretty much saying the same thing: we’re becoming less productive. An MIT economist recently wrote that this industrial revolution, that is the one based on mobile and social technology, is producing the least amount of productivity of any industrial revolution the past.

To put that in context, social technology is having less of an impact on positive productivity than:

  • Indoor plumbing
  • Automobiles
  • Electricity
  • The Telegraph

More technology isn’t necessarily better.  Who’d have thought that?

AI and Cognitive Computing Will Be Massive (Especially Voice Recognition)

Amazon has a thousand employees working on their voice recognition tool, the Amazon Echo. When the device takes off - and it will - there will be an unbelieveable volume of data being captured which needs an equally large volume of cognitive computing to process this quantity of data. (The NSA is drooling at the prospect we can tell.)

The reason that voice recognition is such an incredible step forward in AI and Cognitive Computing is that according to research conducted by Stanford students on voice recognition, your phone can type three times faster and more accurately than you can. This could mean, in the future, that peripherals such as keyboards wouldn’t just be unnecessary, but an active hindrance to your productivity. Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple, Facebook, and companies like Deloitte are putting a lot of funding into AI voice recognition, because they see it’s massive potential.

Predictive Data Will Influence HR More Than Ever.


‘..almost fifty percent of [sic] fitbit's now are sold to HR departments on behalf of their employees because their employees are so overwhelmed at work..’

Almost 15% of companies now monitor or predict something about your behavior. Decisions will be made based on the data they're collecting about your activity at work, such as your email traffic, your time at your desk, your screen heatmaps. According to Josh, Microsoft has bought a company that monitors email metadata, so he predicts that we could see some features in Outlook 360 that tell you things about your communication pattern versus other companies and other people in your company.

‘Trust networks’ within organizations play a large role in determining who are the people that are most trusted , and on the opposite side of the coin where do we have compliance or fraud risk in the company. Data has shown us that ‘toxic employees’, that is those who steal from the company or commit harassment, are actually contagious, and when you put other employees within a certain vicinity of the toxic employee, then over time they start acting the same way. Being able to identify these types of employees enables companies to to develop all sorts of interventions, so data will play a huge part in how HR operates in the future.

Jobs aren’t going away - they’re changing.


“When automation comes we simply do different things."

In the early 80s the ATM started to proliferate our towns and cities.  Either way we’re all pretty sure that at that point in time articles were being written that spelled the end of the branch banker. Everyone probably thought they’d do all their banking electronically. There are now close to a million ATMs around the world and the number of bank branch tellers is higher now than it was in the 80s. According to Josh, we likely have ten times as many branches and the tellers. Josh raises a good point that they're trying to help you solve problems that the ATM machine can’t do, so the jobs aren’t going away, we’re still working side by side with the machines.

Machines just don’t seem to match human performance on things like:

  • Courage
  • Empathy
  • Listening
  • Understanding

Josh gives the example in his talk about how people react when you're in a meeting and somebody doesn't understand what's going on. It’s a human skill that’s used to try to bring somebody up to speed. There’s a host of skills we use that will probably never be automated, or automated fully, by our electronic counterparts.

Diverse Teams Are Better (But We Knew That Already)


“..if our economies are going to grow we're gonna have to get comfortable with the fact that immigration is a positive thing..”

There have been studies after studies after studies on diversity and inclusion in business and every single one shows that the highest performing teams, the best decisions and the best customer service comes from diverse and inclusive teams.

  • When you have a racially diverse team people are willing to take more risks
  • When you have a gender diverse team people feel safer and they're more willing to speak up certain things happen in a very positive way.

Diversity is a very important part of economic growth. If you take a look at countries like Germany, Japan, the UK, and the United States we are forecast to have a declining birth rate, whereas all of the really high growth countries are in Asia and India and in some of the more underdeveloped countries in the Far East and the Middle East. If our economies are going to grow we're gonna have to get comfortable with the fact that immigration is a positive thing.

In Silicon Valley the heads of HR at almost every major corporation are talking about their program to reduce unconscious bias in order to build a better diverse workforce. They want to stop recruiting people from top universities just because they are top universities. Part of the diversity issue is the fact that young people entering the workforce have changed the workplace - bigger companies are still struggling to figure out what is it that Millennials really want, and some of this is not just not because they're Millennials - that just because their young are looking for more dynamic, inclusive or real-time workplaces, and if you can provide them that that will enable the new world of work. In fact, in most young people's minds diversity isn't even an issue as most of them grew up in a world that's highly interconnected and highly diverse.

What Does ‘Career’ Mean Anymore?

What is a career? Traditionally a career went something like this:

Bolt yourself to a big brand company > cross your fingers that you would have a ‘good career there’.

This is very different to how the world works today.

Future generations are going to have the opportunity to change careers, change companies and change professions (and will probably have to as technology changes how we work) and so they're going to have to get comfortable with reinventing themselves constantly. Josh identifies the issue that people struggle with this whole topic is the fear and the difficult process of continuously reinventing yourself.

There are already companies pushing their employees to embrace this culture of reinvention. The CEO of AT&T was quoted in New York Times saying “there is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop.” Going on  he that “people who do not spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning will obsolete themselves with the technology.” You can read the full article here.

The Gig Economy is a Force of Both Good and Bad

Research seems to show a steady increase in the percentage of the workforce that's operating in some contingent form. Behind this trend towards a greater percentage of us working on contingent basis is companies such as Airbnb and Uber and various other analogues of their business models. Entrepreneurs are starting to make a lot of money selling platforms and building platforms to supply this gig work.

The dark side of this though is that the people that are working in these jobs do not have vacation benefits, they do not have health care, they don't get sick days, they don't get paid time off when something bad happens at home, and they're missing a lot of the basic fundamentals that we consider to be expectations at work. Josh indicated that Harvard professors are attempting to define and create (conceptually, at least) a new class of worker and a shared security account that allows people to “invest in sort of a semi security account when they're only working part-time so they get some benefits.”

A long way to go, but steps are being made in the right direction, for now.

Companies Want Culture, But Possess No Idea of How it Would Look

When it comes to defining company jargon, culture is one of the most elusive terms out there.

Working in technology is often an exercise in adaptability. Jobs in tech are always in flux, they’re changing all the time. Employees often shuffle around teams, they do a bit of everything, their jobs being a long list of interconnected duties - some of which are simply done on the fly. Working in this sort of industry it’s hard to work out exactly what you do. (Just ask anyone who’s tried to define their job on LinkedIn..) For most people it’s company culture that provides the bond where conventional structures fail to provide the glue. Culture binds them together, we know this is just common sense. In a survey conducted by Deloitte, 88% of companies said that they believe their culture is a critical issue in their organization, yet only 14% actually knew what a good culture would look like.

You can’t transplant a culture into a company, it has to come from the top. How you interact, how you solve problems and talk to each other will pervade the rest of the company. (Who can forget Google’s famous “These Ads Suck” parable.)

A culture is what provides stability in what is often - at least in the tech sector - a tumultuous working experience. As the way we work changes and we reinvent ourselves to adapt, culture and a shared bonding ideology provides a strong foundation for our working lives.

2016 11 10 19: 39: 27 by Digital Knights

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